Between the three 40-minute sets Anita O’Day performed Tuesday, a screen drops behind the Atlas stage, and the singer is seen in her early 20s bouncing, dancing and singing with a rowdy Gene Krupa behind the drums and Roy Eldridge delivering a mighty trumpet solo over Krupa’s fierce big band. It’s a welcome sign that O’Day is so willing to address the ghosts that surround her return — in the lobby she sells her autobiography that ends with her kicking heroin in the late 1960s — that it’s easy to accept what age and a destructive lifestyle have done to her voice.
O’Day turns 80 next month and has considerably cleaned up her act in the three years since she was hospitalized, and some say near death, after a fall at her trailer in the desert town of Hemet.
Her return, which included a gig at Gotham’s Avery Fisher Hall in June with the Manhattan Transfer and will find her bringing in the new millennium at Chaya Brasserie in BevHills, has been accompanied by an eye-opening box set from the mail order reissue label Mosaic of Stamford, Conn.
The nine-CD set, “The Complete Anita O’Day Verve/Clef Sessions,” showcases her recordings from 1952 to 1962 and delivers a sturdy argument that revolutionary jazz singing wasn’t limited to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan as revisionist historians have argued.
Tuesday evening, O’Day was four lines into “Let’s Fall in Love” and already showing she had lost none of her phrasing skills. The absence of held notes, the subtle gaps in lines, the scatting and the dropping in, for effect, of “la-la-la” phrases dominated her perf.
O’Day turns Louis Jordan’s jumpy “Is You or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)” into a slow blues, singing against Jim DiJulio’s walking bass and emphasizing the heartache of the lyric with a crack and, unlike other jazz singers, virtually no quiver in the higher register.
Tales have long been told of O’Day’s demands of sidemen, and she asserts her musical mind onstage, calling out keys and tempos, giving soloists a specific number of bars and then counting them off, and then questioning a move she wasn’t quite prepared for after a song ends. Pianist Marty Harris backs her with understatement and fluidity.
Through it all, she sings admirably, a touch groggy but always emotional and always in key. Her range was never that wide to start, and as more and more septuagenarians step to the stage — Jimmy Scott, John Lee Hooker, Ruth Brown — there’s a sense of forgiveness between audience and performer that has its rightful place.
O’Day keeps her sets short, singing four songs and handing the microphone to Mark Miller, an engaging if dry mellow-voiced tenor.